Phone customization: Do we want it? Do we need it?

by: Bogdan PetrovanJuly 5, 2013

The-Friday-Debate aa Evan Forester

This week, we’re debating the merits and drawbacks of phone customization, spurred by Motorola’s teasing of the upcoming Moto X. The Google subsidiary promised that the Moto X will be the first phone we’ll be able to design ourselves, though a leak revealed that the “designing” is just picking the colors and a custom engraving.

Customization is what makes Android so powerful, so we wondered what would happen if hardware would be just as open as Android software is.

Join us for the discussion, vote in our poll, and sound off in the comments!

Robert Triggs

I’m not totally sold on the idea that we really need detailed phone customization, after all, there are so many handsets already available to choose from.

Now case customization is actually an idea that I can back. Having the choice between different covers, waterproofing, additional scratch protection, etc. Those are all relatively easy to implement and will let consumers pick features which fit their lifestyles.

But there are limiting factors when it comes to implementing anything beyond the aesthetic level. Most SoCs aren’t compatible with different sockets for a start, so you’re going to be limited when it comes to hardware choices anyway. Then what about different bezels for screen sizes, or stocking different chips for various memory capacities? It’s just totally impractical to have intricate customization of a smartphone in the same way that you do a PC, not to mention that the build time and cost would be horrendous.

I like the idea behind the Sony XTRUD concept, as a guy who builds his own PCs, but I’m unsure whether it can be support properly enough to give people what they want. Just look at how many resources are poured into projects like CyanogenMod so that Android can run on various hardware configurations. I just don’t see any company stumping up that much of a time and monetary investment to support something which will most likely be a niche product anyway.

The Moto X seems to be the sweet spot in my opinion. It has enough customisation options to personalise your handset without the costs and technical issues associated with having a huge range of hardware configurations to satisfy.

Joshua Vergara

I actually think customization would bring back some fun that has been missing in the smartphone market. In my previous video giving current thoughts on the Galaxy S4, I made the case that because the phone doesn’t really attract eyes like I feel it should, the device itself started to feel old. That’s because conceptually and in design, it really is. Sticking to the same general idea as the Galaxy S3 wasn’t a mistake, but it is a bit of a bummer after some time.

Now, imagine if at the time of buying your new phone, you were presented with options. I’m talking the same level of customization that Nike Jordans or Kobe shoes give you. Seriously, if you’ve never looked at basketball shoe customization, check it out and imagine the same system for smartphones. Perhaps an example that better hits home is laptop/desktop customization, but I think you all get my drift.

Different colors for different parts of the phone, perhaps etched designs, and, while we’re at it, what if you bought one with slightly lesser specs to make it even more affordable? I do this with laptops every time – go for the best of last generation’s hardware to keep the cost low. Imagine getting a Moto X with a Snapdragon S4 Pro knowing it’ll still be fast for you!

Customization excites me because I learned something recently – I miss the old days of phones. We call them dumbphones or feature phones now – but back when Sony was paired with Ericsson, back when Japanese phones seemed like things of myth, before every phone was a black screen with differing backs, we had a lot more choice and it was possible to get a phone no one else had.

It’s not entirely that we want a phone no one else has – that’s a misleading way of putting it. In the end, some (plenty) of us want something quintessentially us. If our smartphones are supposed to be extensions of ourselves, why not take that to the fullest extent?

Andrew Grush

As someone who loves building powerful desktop rigs just so I can get the hardware specs exactly how I want them, you’d think I’d be all over the idea of a truly customizable smartphone platform. In reality? It’s a cool idea, but not a practical one.

With a smartphone you are talking about a tiny little chassis, and many components that are tightly squeezed together or even fully integrated. Having to make room for quick design changes certainly would be a challenge.

While creating full processor/RAM/screen customization isn’t impossible in the smartphone arena, it could prove to be a very expense process. And much of that expense would translate over to consumers.Why pay $1000+ for that customized smartphone when there’s already likely a vendor out there with a smartphone configured ‘close enough’ to your dream phone, but at a price that is hundreds of dollars less?

That said, it is fully possible to do a partially customizable phone – like with the Moto X. With this approach you get a phone that is in the color combo you desire, making it easier to stand out in a crowded sea of mobile devices. It’s not quite full customization, but for most mobile users, it is enough.Will other brands follow if the Moto X proves popular? Maybe. But let’s be honest, there are probably expenses and other considerations even in Motorola’s approach that might not make sense for most manufacturers.

Motorola is able to pull of some of these moves because they are part of Google, and Google doesn’t aim to make money directly off phone hardware.

Joe Hindy

I believe that phone customization is, in and of itself, the epitome of Android. You look at 100 Android phones from 100 random people and you’re likely to get 100 different configurations. Different widgets, apps, launchers, and even OEM skins in you’re into that sort of thing. So why not phone customization? Why not be able to only customize what’s on the screen but around the screen as well? In my mind’s eye, it’s the next big, logical step in the smartphone market.

Now, as Andrew pointed out, customization to the extent of the internals is simply silly. All those pieces are also very small and, in my cases, are soldered together. Unlike the PC market, where you can screw or snap everything into place, putting a smartphone together from scratch would be ridiculously difficult for the average person and even most tech nerds. I can build a PC, but I have no clue how to handle a solder gun.

However, that doesn’t mean that internal customization isn’t possible. There are scenarios where the company can add customizations easier than the customer could. For instance, a customer who doesn’t take a lot of pictures could change the camera from a base 13MP to an 8MP or even a 4MP to save a few bucks. Maybe they want to MAXX it out and give it a bigger battery (see what I did there?). I mean if you never use the front facing camera, is there any reason to include one that records 720p video? Of course not. The point being that while the main specs such as the CPU, GPU, RAM, etc may not be ergonomic enough to customize, there are plenty of other pieces inside the phone that can be customized.

The last thing I want to point out is that, theoretically, it is possible to put the guts of one phone into the case of another. I’m not saying it’s easy or cost effective, but it is possible. Just take a look at Project Revolution, which got the guts of the legendary HTC HD2 into the the HTC EVO 4G body.

Bottom line. Am I for customization? Oh yeah. Do I hope it happens? You betcha. It would be beyond awesome to customize your phone as easily as you can customize your Android experience. Is this what the Motorola X delivers? Not by a long shot, but as the old staying goes, it’s a start!

Adam Koueider

A lot of people buy their smartphones based on the brand name or the product name. For example: my mother wants to get a Galaxy Note 2, but does she really need a 1.6Ghz Quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM? Probably not. Since it’s a Galaxy Note 2 it makes it a desirable, but with phone customization you can save a few dollars. Now I’m not asking for too much, but here’s a rather simple proposition:

  • Processor: Snapdragon 400, 600 and 800
  • RAM: 1GB, 2GB, 3GB
  • Camera: 5MP, 8MP, 13MP
  • Screen resolution: 720P, Full HD
  • Operating system: Stock Android, TouchWiz/Sense/Xperia UI etc.

In fact, some could say that smaller OEMs like HTC could just have one or two products with these customizations available. But then we snap back to reality and realize that this is probably never going to happen. The other side of phone customization is a little more possible though.

I remember my old Nokia 2730 classic. The first thing I did was go to a guy at the market who swapped the shell of the device for a neon orange one. Why? Because I was 15, and when you’re 15 the only colors you are interested are neon colors and having your phone’s color match your neon soccer boots. It cost me $15 and about 15 minutes of my time, however, now it is virtually impossible.

Samsung indirectly offers a little customization by having a removable back plate, so for those of you who dislike the plastic back of the Galaxy S3 or S4, a quick ebay search will find you an aluminum back plate.

But yet again, it’s Nokia leading the smartphone customization options (I’ve said this a few times, Nokia please come to Android, I miss you) with the Nokia Lumia 820. Believe it or not, Nokia has released a 3D-printing Development Kit to allow consumers to 3D print a custom shell for their Lumia. That’s without adding the fact that it’s also available in wide range of colors.

While we don’t all have access to a 3D printer now, perhaps in 10 years we might have our own 3D printers at home, and not to mention the businesses that can be created for creating a custom shell for your smartphone. I’m genuinely interested in the customization that the Moto X will offer. It probably won’t be as good as I would like it to be, but it’s a start.

Does true phone customization have a future?

Join us in the comments and vote in our poll.

[poll id=”328″]

  • MasterMuffin

    No one threw the fragmentation card? Well here are my short thoughts (though no one is interested but whatever). There should be smartphones with many customizable things like:

    -build material (plastic, carbon fiber, kevlar, wood, aluminium…)
    -color (moarh colors)
    -RAM (1Gb, 2Gb or 3Gb)

    I believe those would be “easy” changes (unless the phone is going to sell like an S4 or iPhone). I’d like to tell you a story about a modern smartphone that had many different color options. When Lumia 920 came to the market, it had all these wonderful and different colors like for example red and yellow. BUT, there was a but. If you went to a store, they may have had a phone which you could test and it could have been yellow for example. After trying it out, what if you wanted to buy a yellow Lumia? There weren’t any. Mostly all that were being sold were either black or white. If you wanted a yellow one, you had to wait for weeks, even months (!) for it. People at Nokia thought that (even though the bright colors were new and fresh) the Lumias that were colored “normally” would sell lot more. So when people actually wanted yellow and red, they couldn’t make them fast enough and some people (like my father) didn’t buy Lumia 920 at all because he didn’t want a boring looking phone and they lost a lot of sales.

    I’m (already) starting to loose the main point here (it’s late and I’m sleepy) and I actually don’t even remember what it was (>_<), it's late and I think I'll go to sleep :) Somebody tell me if this comment actually made any sense, thanks and good night! :D

    • Ivan Myring


      • MasterMuffin

        I guess my comment did make sense? Great! And yes, wood.
        Damn the Gmail notification of your reply woke me up :)

        • Ivan Myring

          : (

          • MasterMuffin

            No prob at all, my dog kept me up pretty much all night anyway :)

  • gs4

    Us android addicts clearly are too spoiled, we have people complaining how a 13 month design is getting old(s3 and s4), while iphones have had the same design for 6 years……

    • Deo Reyes

      its because android users are free to do whatever they want on their phone. we’re not like others that are happy to be stuck in a single design. every android users’ mobile phones are unique, not like your iphone, which is exactly like everyone else’s.

  • Charles Chambers

    Not a good idea. Too much tech speak will confuse the general customers. The general populace won’t know how much ram they need, and will will instead just get the “galaxy” phone or the iPhone.

  • RobertMahoney

    If I wanted a phone that could only be stock, I would get an iPhone.

  • Paolo T.

    My idea of ‘phone customisation’ is the same idea as to why the iPhone is a hit for many people – Abundance of Accessories – cases, plates, flip covers, speaker docks, gaming pads, the what-not. That would be a better virtue of phone customisation.

  • Deo Reyes

    what im waiting for in the future is actual customization, just like desktop PCs. building your own phone! lol its almost impossible but in the near future it could happen

  • William Worlde

    Oftentimes with most things I’m about to purchase, I don’t know what I want until I see it. I depend on the marketeers to *tell* me what I want. Right now, I’m even sick of the few eye-candy “benefits” I’m getting from custom ROM but dreading all the work that’s needed to go back to a stock device! What won’t make me tire of a phone I myself customized 6 months earlier?!

  • Whitefire

    Phone custimization is the best way for Google to combat hardware commoditization. They just recently were granted a patent to automatically make a software use a lot less resources when phone battery is low. Compare that to hardware companies simply packing in bigger batteries with the same software, or putting in more cpu’s or higher frequency cpu’s or ram, or anything like that. Google’s Moto X phone is simply going to directly combat all hardware manufacturers. Phone customization had only had a matter of time until it became a reality, (if the level of customization is true). I see this as a pure progress and huge leap forward. I’m hoping it becomes a reality. I’ve wanted a certain smartphone design for quite some time, and things look even better with Key Lime Pie being compatible with older devices!

    Here’s what I’ve been looking for.


    1.) A handset by Motorola/Google. (I love the reliability of Motorola handset hardware and I like the FM radio antenna :) )

    2.) A phone size that is a happy medium between Droid 1 and Droid 3…Droid 4 is just too big

    3.) A front face that won’t break, chip or melt just by looking at it. (This includes the screen guard on the rim and a bendable display with excellent touch responsiveness and that can take a decent beating. {Android seems to be riddled with touch to move lag})

    4.) A high resolution LED (better image and power usage) edge to edge display with very little margin on the top and bottom for speaker, mic, camera and “Droid 1, 2, 3, 4-like” haptic feedback buttons.

    5.) A tungsten carbide/rubber (for bendable screen) casing with a removable slim 3000+ mAh battery with replaceable external storage up to 100 GB.

    6.) A slim body (like a GSIII)

    7.) An ultra-slim slider qwerty Droid 4-like keyboard

    8.) Internal Storage of 5 GB

    9.) RAM at 3-6 GB

    10.) Dual – Quad core 1.0+ gHz processor with an extra “Required operations to run pure Android OS” core to allow main cores to go into sleep mode.

    11.) 12+ MP Rear Camera with dual flash (like the original droid) and a front facing camera with a light for low visibility areas for video chat, etc.

    12.) A headphone jack that has a reliable connectivity over long periods of time.

    13.) 4G (or newest wireless generation available) capabilities with the availability of every other radio before that (with exclusive radios such as CDMA only, etc) to enable users to still be connected to the internet but save battery as well.

    14.) The return of the camera button would be nice as well :)

    15.) A phone that wasn’t so sharp in shape as well…more rounded corners than the Droid 1, 2, 3, and 4


    1.) Stock AOSP Jellybean with a Motoblur and non-AOSP apps ON/OFF toggle or make it into an app that people can download and install/uninstall or disable. Everyone should have the freedom to do with their very expensive phones what they please as far as performance and how it looks. Allow certain Motoblur features to be turned on while others are off.

    2.) A safe overclock/undervolt (specifically using less voltage while being overclocked) feature with the option to change governors, schedulers, and I/O’s

    3.) Power toggles at the top of the notification bar when pulled down

    4.) Swype Keyboard as an option

    5.) A power button that is harder for jeans pockets to turn on…I assume Apple has a patent on their switch power button

    …..but that’s just me. :)

  • nishantsirohi123

    multiple back panels like the yesteryears nokias are a fun to use

    and those with cut out stensils, hell nokia even had a device with a photoframe on its back panel

  • Roberto Tomás

    it makes sense primarily for batteries. Some people want phones so light that they can put them in their front shirt pockets .. that’s like 90 grams or something. Others want a phone that will last thru use all day, that is not 90 grams. :)
    it could work for screens too but, I believe they probably aren’t itching to make standards-reliant screens because of the loss of market control. so you might never get a top-shelf screen as a drop-in part.
    Im not so sold on most other parts. The gpu, if it were discrete, would still be heat limited even in use-near-power-source situations like with the TV for gaming. The same could be said for using the cpu to potential. You can build in cooling solutions, but then it isn’t water resistant, etc. So you are looking at entirely different cases from the ground up, if you want to offer customizable internals.

  • Austin Deane

    Being able to customize my own Android phone would be a dream come true. A dream that, through eventually starting Nova, the tech company that I want to start, could possibly be fulfilled. I can imagine offering customers some hardware customization. For example: A choice of a few different processors, which would allow a customer to cut down the cost. Different screen resolutions, if they don’t need the highest, best resolution. 0.5, 1, 1.5, 2, 3, and 4 GB RAM configurations. 4, 5, 8, and 13 MP configurations for the camera. The option to lower/increase the resolution of the front facing camera. And even the storage space. How about a larger battery? Dual SIM support? I can imagine offering this level of customizability for the products that I’d have available. And lots of software customization. With a near stock skin, I would want offer users a way to customize the software/add and remove features to their liking. So, on my [Android] devices would exist a feature “store”, that would allow users to install whatever features they want. They want the front facing camera to track your eyes/keep the screen from turning off? That’s easy. How about other similar features that exist on competitors devices? Assuming that it isn’t patented to all hell, it will exist as a user installable option.